I have a lot of things to be thankful for in my life... but there’s one thing in particular that I feel especially fortunate about.
I never have problems with my sleep.
If you're lucky like me, appreciate it well.
At least 30% of my clients mention insomnia as a significant problem in their life, and those are just the ones who bring it up. I’d guess that at least 50% are struggling with sleep more than they should be.
They lay awake at night, struggling to relax, fighting intrusive thoughts and emotions from the day. When you’re laying in bed with nothing to distract you, anxiety can rule your mind and remind you of every little thing that’s not going perfectly in your world.
I see this most especially with my female clients, but men struggle often too. It’s a circus of torture, and your amygdala is the ringmaster.
Even though I don’t have this problem, I can deeply relate...
I never have problems with my sleep. But I used to.
As a teen, I used to lay awake at night, my mind abuzz with thoughts, anxieties, reflections and TODO’s. It was a deafening rock concert of noise in my head that would push and pull me in every possible direction except the one that I wanted to go...
I just wanted to sleep. But even relaxing seemed impossible.
Between the ages of 13 and 18 I kept a very full schedule- school, two jobs, and at least 3 after school clubs - I was into everything that interested me.
I liked doing stuff, and I hated boredom.
But this schedule had a downside. I’d wake up between 4 & 5am to start my first job- a newspaper delivery route. Remember newspapers? My shoulder does. I’d carry this massive bag for hours.
Then school, various clubs, and my second job working as an ad designer. I’d finish homework at around 11pm and have about 6 hours to sleep if I was lucky.
And even though I was exhausted... my mind fought me, hard.
I just didn’t know how to turn it off.
But somehow, pushing my sleep schedule hard is the very thing that forced me to learn how to sleep better. I learned to sleep pretty much anywhere, and fall asleep in as little as 10 seconds flat.
You might think, “hey that’s a neat trick,” but how important is this really?
On average, humans spend 26 years sleeping and an additional 7 years trying to get to sleep. Therefore, a total of 33 years is spent on sleep, which accounts for 41.25% of an average lifespan.
- Huffington Post
So, if it's that important, how can we learn to sleep better?
Look to the Experts
While we don’t teach sleep in schools, there are some careers in which people are forced to learn good sleep practices in order to survive.
The best people to learn from are the ones who are regularly at the limits of their comfort- pushed to stay awake when they’re tired, and forced to sleep in very uncomfortable conditions. Among these, military personnel and long-haul airline pilots probably top the list.
We can learn a lot from these people.
Here are some of the essentials I’ve found reading about the sleep practices of soldiers and long-haul pilots, mixed with my own personal experiences.
Prepare for Good Sleep
Just like incredible sex, awesome sleep has a kind of foreplay- and just like great foreplay, it lasts all day long.
- Exercise every day. It increases your natural sleep drive and signals your body to stay awake. The more awake and alert you feel during the day, the more ready for sleep you’ll feel at the end of the day.
- Avoid alcohol, especially before important days. It may make you feel sleepy but it can negatively impact the quality of your sleep.
- Don't rely on caffeine to stay awake during the day. Use natural methods like splashing water on your face and drinking non-caffeinated tea.
- If you’re tired during your day, don’t fight sleep. Consider short naps of 10-20 minutes to improve alertness.
When it’s time to sleep;
Actually be tired. I don’t try to sleep based on the clock. I sleep based on what my body tells me. It works much better.
Have a go-to-sleep routine. Shut down your computer. Turn off your screens. Shower, brush your teeth, read a few pages of a good book. A simple routine that you enjoy can help you relax and get into sleep mode.
Going to sleep
Once you're in bed, ready to fall asleep, here's the process taught by the Navy's military pilot training corps.
Relax your body;
- Relax the muscles in your face, including the muscles inside your mouth.
- Drop your shoulders as far down as they'll go, followed by your upper and lower arm, one side at a time.
- Breathe out, and relax your chest followed by your legs, starting from the thighs and working down.
Relax your mind;
Clear your mental inbox. Anything dancing around in my head, I write down for later, or I’ll audio record a journal entry if I need to unload something significant.
Spend 10 seconds trying to clear your mind of all thoughts.
Then, if you're still awake, focus your attention by imagining one of the following scenes:
- Lying in a canoe on a calm lake, nothing but blue sky above you.
- Snuggled in a black velvet hammock in a pitch-black room.
- Saying "don't think, don't think, don't think" over and over for at least 10 seconds.
Practice makes perfect
Practice these techniques intentionally.
You won't hit a home run on the first swing here. According to military teachers, this technique is said to work for 96 percent of people after six weeks of regular practice.
If you’re struggling to sleep
Don't stress if you can't sleep.
Stress (cortisol) will work against you and keep you awake as part of your fight-or-flight response. Instead, do something you enjoy. Read, or flip on a movie.
Pay attention to what feels “off”.
- If your mind is busy with thoughts, journal those thoughts. I write down TODO’s, and voice record my reflections on anything that is weighing on me.
- If your body is feeling tense, or agitated, do something physical. Light exercise like yoga or stretching, or go for a walk. Or take a shower or warm bath.
Give your mind something to distract it, that doesn’t actually require your attention.
Often, I’ll play Netflix, or Youtube a TED talk, to simply give my mind something to direct attention towards that doesn’t matter. I pick things that involve a lot of talking - sitcoms or stand-up comedy routines, or documentaries.
The better you sleep, the better you can process, learn, and destress- and the more clarity and energy you'll have for the next day.
Invest the time you need to build good sleep practices.
It's worth it!
And if you're interested, you can learn some more about sleep here.
BROJO: Confidence. Clarity. Connection.
Join BROJO - the premier international self-development community - FREE!
- Connect with like-minded people who will support you with your goals and issues
- Overcome people-pleasing and Nice Guy Syndrome to build strong social confidence
- Get access to exclusive online courses to learn advanced social skills, how to master your psychology, proven career progression techniques and more
How to Fall Asleep in 120 Seconds
This is a relaxation technique designed to help you unwind and fall asleep quickly, anywhere, in 120 seconds. Please note that individual results may vary, and it may take some time and practice for this method to be effective.
7 Sleep secrets from long-haul pilots
Here are the secrets to a good night's sleep, as told to by long-haul pilots. From The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned to Sleep Again by Miranda Levy.
The amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure in the brain, is primarily responsible for processing emotions, including fear and anxiety. It is part of the limbic system, a network of structures in the brain that are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those related to survival. The amygdala uses incoming information to help generate fear responses and anxious feelings, preparing the body for a fight or flight response. However, it's important to note that while the amygdala plays a crucial role, the experience of fear and anxiety is a complex process that involves other parts of the brain and nervous system as well.